The economy is swell or swelling like a flooding river, so I’m told. I know about real estate prices in New York and how the smallest of roach-infected closets in the West Village costs more than a 10-room Victorian in Minneapolis. This means I probably couldn’t buy my apartment now if I didn’t already own it. On the other hand, if I sell my apartment, the extra worth will only get me exactly what I have now, so the wonderful prices are only prizes if I leave town for the Ozarks, and I’d rather not. I know that Balthazar booms and to get a reservation at Nick and Toni’s in the Hamptons I would have to spend two days on the telephone once I could figure out which two days. I know that capitalism, aside from a raw edge here or there, is working like a charm. But I can’t help worrying about debt. Mine.
Here’s the thing. If I use my credit card, it yakety-yaks right through the machine. I have several of them, so I can whip out a different color, platinum, gold, gray or amber, at whim. But then at the end of the month an accounting comes due, and I’m always a little surprised. It’s not that I can’t add. It’s that I don’t much enjoy it, so I postpone the tally until I can’t anymore, and then I feel a little sick, like a person who is enjoying the roller coaster ride but is also terrified. One of these days, my little car will pull loose from the track and go hurtling down, out on its own, pulled by gravity-smash.
I know, it’s been explained to me again and again. Some debt is tax-deductible and therefore a good debt to have, a kind of cancer that if caught in time isn’t as life-threatening as other cancers. I know that everyone else has a mortgage just like me and that images in my mind of evil bankers reclaiming farms in the dust bowl aside, the odds are that my mortgage, while it seems never to grow smaller, will continue to be no more than the average-size albatross that I will wear around my neck for the rest of my days on this planet.
At the end of the month, the bills sit on my desk like Jiminy Cricket in a hot lather. I pay them, of course, not all together but a bit here and more there, spreading the effort as thin and as far as it will go. I tear up offers for new credit cards. I pay Lilco utility bills but curse them from the dark, murky bottom of my heart. I pay my insurance, life, health, auto, home, fire. I make lists and plans for distribution of available funds, funds that never stay in my checking account long enough to get acquainted with each other. Was it Ben Franklin who said neither a lender nor a borrower be? Well, most of us are both. If you own a bond, you’ve lent, and if you’ve paid for it, you probably borrowed. I think.
The idea of a self-sufficient month, the kind in which what goes out came in and the future looks the same as the past, is as rare as a June bug on Santa’s nose.
Yes, I know the economy is doing well, exactly because I almost feel compelled to purchase a new computer with all its glorious interconnected software and put it on my credit card. The economy depends on the fact that I really want a red pair of shoes to go with my new dress and if I buy them I will be allowing some workers in Thailand to make subsistence-level wages, which otherwise they wouldn’t and might therefore prostitute themselves on the sex market, so, really, these red shoes in my closet are a good deed as well as a boost for my foot vanity. But then regardless of the fact that I’m helping the world economy out of my good citizenship and shoe urges, I end up owing someone something that I have to shuffle onto another month.
The fact is that temptation is everywhere, and I’m stuck with this puritan soul that thinks it ought to be able to survive on berries and ash at Walden Pond but actually requires twice-weekly trips to Zabar’s for tofu and scallions and imported chocolates.
Debt is frightening because so many of us are tightrope-walking from year to year, only a few calamities away from not quite paying everything off. People in all cultures plan for their old age with a trembling heart. No even partially sane person wants to rely on their children, who will have pressing consumer urges of their own and, even if they no longer play their music at a deafening decibel, will not for long tolerate the burden of a parent who arrives at their doorstep with a parcel of unpaid bills in tow.
Let me be clear. I’m not poor-mouthing here. I bring in more than I could have ever expected when I was a young pup and Mastercard did not know my mother’s maiden name. But I am thinking about this entirely-possible-to-drown matter of swimming so fast upstream that I need to keep swimming even faster just to stay in the same place. By now, I know that into whatever foolish hole I will fall other people will tumble, too. In New York City, it costs a young couple with two children $75,000 pretax for a private school. Most of them must also be putting some bills in the bottom drawer while taking a spring vacation in the Caribbean and paying the orthodontist and the excellent cook at E.A.T. or the Gourmet Garage.
So I’m longing for the days of balanced ledgers. I’m eager to return to a state of innocence when all I owed was the $4 1 borrowed from my brother’s bar mitzvah stake. I’m thinking that I should learn some survival skills. How to recognize poison ivy and rub two sticks together to create a warming, un-Lilco-connected fire. I’m thinking that I would stand taller against our big sky if Chase Manhattan Bank didn’t know my address. I’m thinking that if I were a really good person, I would be frugal, unfettered by free sky miles and I wouldn’t know my insurance agent’s first name and I think it would be more profitable to be mutual with my spouse instead of a fund.
All this musing about “civilization in reverse” is mere idle fantasy. The truth is that I am, like vast numbers of my fellow citizens, a creature of debt. It’s become my atmosphere. Fish who live in the dark for centuries lose their eyes. Their sockets atrophy and seal over. So our New York form of capitalism may have atrophied my sense of propriety. My debt is my tail. I flash it here and there.